Friday, 26 April 2013

Scrabbling by Sophie Hampton

I am eight and twenty-eight and a hundred to one. A hundred to one is an odds. Odds are how likely something is to happen. Different to odd.

As Ciara and I walk past a park on the way to the supermarket, I peer through the railings.
            ‘Can we go in?’ I ask.
            ‘No.’ She points at a sign. ‘Adults are only admitted if they’re accompanied by a child.’
            When I was little it was the other way round.
            ‘You can come in with me,’ I say.
            ‘You’re not a child. How many times do I have to tell you?’
            ‘But I’ve got a mental age of eight,’ I say on au-to-pil-ot.
            ‘Come on, Michael,’ says Ciara but I grip the railings and my knuckles go white.
            There are children everywhere: in the paddling pool, on the swings, in the sandpit, and dotted across the grass like brightly coloured flowers. I so badly want to play but whenever I try to make friends, parents grab their children’s hands, drag them along so that the soles of their shoes bounce along the ground.
            A little boy toddles over to a little girl and kisses her on the cheek. I hold my breath as I wait for the mothers to be angry but they tip back their heads and laugh.
            ‘How cute,’ says one.
            ‘Adorable,’ says the other.
            ‘Josh,’ calls the mother of the boy as she takes a camera from her bag. ‘Put your arm around Chloe.’
            The children pose and smile; the mothers look proud and happy.
            ‘Come on,’ says Ciara. ‘You can play tomorrow. Your family are coming. Remember?’
            Ciara Walker is my careworker. With a name like that I suppose she had to be.

Last month I moved into a flat where the walls are painted in a four syllable colour called mag-no-li-a, the same shade as the tinned rice pudding I have for supper every night. When I flick a spoonful of rice across the room, it takes me ages to find the spot where it slithered down the wall. It has left a trail like a slug. When Ciara goes next door I lick it off.
            After supper, Ciara and I play Scrabble. I always win, even when I play against myself. The board has slots for the pieces to click into, which is easier for my fingers. I choose seven letters: RRKOSWE. I find SOW and then ROWS. Ciara starts. She only puts down four letters, CARE, and I check if I can add any. I can make CARER or CARERS or CAREWORK or CAREWORKERS! My cheeks are hot and my hand trembles as I re-arrange the letters in my rack. Ciara yawns and looks at her watch as I work out the score in my head: 3 plus 1 plus 1 plus 1 plus 4 plus 1 plus 1, plus 5 times 2 (double letter score), plus 1 plus 1 plus 1 equals 25, times 3 (triple word score) equals 75, plus 50 for going out equals 125. The biggest score of my life.
            ‘One hundred and twenty-five!’ I shout as I punch the air.
            ‘How come?’ says Ciara.
            ‘CAREWORKERS!’ I yell, dropping the pieces as I put them on the board.
            ‘You saddo,’ she says. ‘That’s two words. It’s not allowed.’
            I wish she had slapped me like Mum used to before I lived here.

I am so excited about tomorrow that I can’t sleep. When I moved into the flat with magnolia walls, the garden was still being dug. I climbed down into a big hole in the ground filled with rainwater and played in the mud until Ciara came out and laughed. You look exactly like a hippopotamus she said.
I knew that I didn’t but I checked the dictionary: A large mammal having thick, dark, almost hairless skin, short legs with four toes, and a wide-mouthed muzzle. I am large but I have pale skin, a hairy chest, very long legs, five toes on each foot and a small mouth. Nothing like a hipp-o-pot-a-mus. Ciara is stupid. Mental age less than mine.

It is the first time that my normal sister Natalie and her husband have seen my flat.
            ‘It’s nice and bright,’ she says. ‘You can still smell the paint.’
Natalie is thirty. She is a foot shorter than me and thin and beautiful. She has a six year old daughter called Hope. Before Hope was born I thought Natalie was going to give birth to a cat. We visited her when she was pregnant and I tipped my Scrabble set and all my other games onto the carpet. Dad came in and tripped over a box and said If we don’t clear up this mess before Natalie sees it she’ll have kittens. I had read a picture book about how the baby got into Natalie’s tummy and it hurt my head to think about how a kitten could get in there. I imagined that a germ would grow in the mess and infect her but it turned out to be another lie.

We drive to an Italian restaurant, a pizz-er-i-a. Hope and I choose from the children’s menu. I order a pizza called Miss Piggy. Natalie’s husband, Daniel, says that it is called Miss Piggy because ham is made from pigs. I think I once knew that but I had forgotten. I remember the ginger pigs at the city farm and I start to cry. When Mum says Don’t be ridiculous, I oink loudly at her and everyone in the restaurant stares. 
           ‘Everybody knows that ham is pig, silly,’ says Hope.
I should be cleverer than Hope for two more of her birthdays. When she has the mental age of nine she will be cleverer than me. I pick the pale pieces of ham off my pizza and drop them into my glass of coke. Daniel tells me that beef is made from cows and black pudding is made from dried blood and that if I don’t like it I should stop eating meat and become a veg-e-tar-i-an. Mum says Stop winding him up, Daniel.

It’s a sunny day so we walk to the rec and I play football with Daniel and Hope which is fun. Mum and Natalie sit on a bench and talk. I know that I upset Mum when I squealed like a pig in the restaurant so I want to make her happy. Last night, Ciara said Mum would be pleased to see how well my reading is coming along. I look for something to read and spot some graffiti. One of the words is new but I manage to spell it out. I am so proud that I skip towards Mum and shout Shag me! Shag me!
            Mum stands, grabs my arm, raises her hand and slaps me in the face. ‘Don’t you dare use such filthy language,’ she says. ‘You’re disgusting.’
            Daniel runs over. ‘Sarah, he saw it written on the lamppost. He doesn’t know what it means.’
            Mum’s face scrunches up and she starts to cry. ‘I’m so sorry,’ she says. ‘It wasn’t your fault.’
            I have spoilt the day for a second time. There’s a saying I learnt: Third time lucky but there’s another one: Trouble comes in threes.
            ‘Let’s go to the playground,’ says Natalie.
I push Hope’s swing, so high that she almost flips over the top. She can’t stop giggling but Mum tuts and says Be careful. Natalie and Daniel take Hope to ride on the roundabout.
 ‘Do you want me to buy you an ice cream?’ says Mum. Her voice is still upset.
‘Yes, please. A 99 with raspberry sauce and two flakes.’
There is a little girl playing in the sandpit. Her mother is sitting under a tree and talking on a mobile phone. I have an idea that will make Mum’s sadness better.
I wait until she is paying for the ice cream and then I jump into the sandpit next to the little girl. I get down on my knees and try to kiss the girl’s cheek but she turns her head so that I kiss her lips. She tastes of oranges and sun tan lotion. She screams and I try to stand but I trip over her bucket and spade and fall on top of her. Her mother screams too and the man from the ice cream van runs over and kicks me and beats me with his fists. There is grit in my eyes and my nose and my mouth and the girl is squashed underneath me but the harder I try to stand, the harder the man hits me. I struggle free and I manage to smile as a woman takes a photo.
           Please let Mum be happy, I think as I turn round to look for her. She drops the ice cream and she runs. She runs all the way to the other side of the park. 

About the Author: Sophie Hampton's work has been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and is published or forthcoming in Southword, The London Magazine, The Yellow Room, the Eastern Daily Press, Scribble magazine and digitally by Ether Books. She won the Sean O'Faolain International Short Story Prize 2012 and The London Magazine Short Story Competition 2013 and has had success in other competitions including the Bridport Prize and the Brit Writers' Awards. Sophie is a student on the MA Writing course at Sheffield Hallam University and is working on her debut collection of short fiction, White Socks and Weirdos.

Image: (c) 2ose